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Dahlin felt comfortable as rookie with Sabres

Defenseman quickly adjusted to pace of NHL, is working on consistency

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Rasmus Dahlin wasn't surprised by his on-ice experience as a rookie with the Buffalo Sabres this season.

He quickly adapted to the grind and pace of the NHL, as he did against older and stronger competition for two seasons with Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League, to become a dependable defenseman at 18 years old.

"It's everything I expected, but I had high expectations entering the NHL and it has been better than I thought," Dahlin said. "I felt comfortable on and off the ice, and my teammates were great.

"The pace of the NHL was pretty close to the Swedish Hockey League, but the biggest difference is the skill of every player, so that was the challenge."

Video: BUF@DET: Dahlin buries PPG through traffic in front

In a season in which Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson garnered most of the headlines among rookies, Dahlin held his own while playing in a top-four role.

Although he continued to develop over the course of the season, Buffalo (33-39-10) faded and failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, finishing 22 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild card from the Eastern Conference.

The Sabres, who haven't made the playoffs since 2011, fired coach Phil Housley on Sunday after two seasons. A replacement has not been named.

Through all of that, Dahlin showed flashes of his game-changing skills that should become more pronounced as he matures.

"It's been such a joy watching him this year, and I know our coaches love interacting with him. He's looking for knowledge. He's looking for information to get his game better," Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said. "Just his work ethic after practices, working on his game, whether it's his shot, whether it's leverage down low, working on picking guys' sticks up in front of the net, he's always working with our coaching staff on those little details."

Dahlin, who was selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, was the fifth defenseman in NHL history to record at least 30 points before his 19th birthday (53 games), and his four game-winning goals were an NHL record for an 18-year-old defenseman.

"He doesn't make the same mistake twice, he learns from his mistakes very quickly," Botterill said. "He handled matchups very well on the road and you can see the smoothness. It didn't always result in points, but how he ignited our transition game and how he made that first pass out of the zone was a huge advantage for our team."

Video: WSH@BUF: Dahlin one-times PPG from the circle

Dahlin led rookie defensemen in points (44), assists (35) and power-play points (20), and finished second in goals (nine) and average ice time (21:09) behind Miro Heiskanen of the Dallas Stars, who had 12 goals and averaged 23:07 of ice time.

"I think with the way he plays, he plays his own game, is confident, is not shy and does the things that makes him good right away," defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said. "I've been through tough years here and I just want to help keep him loose. He has everything. He's going to figure it out and the experience he's gotten will help him become even better."

Sabres studio analyst and former NHL goalie Martin Biron said the most noticeable thing was how Dahlin seamlessly handled more and more on-ice responsibility as the season progressed.

"It's hard to be in the National Hockey League when you're 18, especially as a defenseman," he said. "He always has a smile on his face, believes in his skills, believes in himself, and that alone will put him as one of the best defensemen in the NHL.

"If you look at guys like Erik Karlsson (San Jose Sharks) and Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning), I don't think those guys were anywhere near as comfortable when they first came into the NHL as Dahlin is right now."

With Dahlin on the ice, the Sabres controlled 51.95 percent of all shots, and he finished tied for third on the team in takeaways (38), and fifth in blocked shots (66) and hits (97).

"It was just about learning to play the game consistently well every night," Dahlin said. "There's a big difference from the Swedish league in everything around the NHL, with the new guys around the team, getting accustomed to a new country and language and things like that. It's not all hockey-related, but those other things impact as well."

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